Mary’s Baby

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Mary’s Baby

Fred Wilkes was hiding in the garden.  He could pretend he was stretching his legs, inspecting the flower beds or killing the time, but he knew what he was doing was hiding.  Fred wasn’t particularly proud of his actions, he knew he should be waiting in his study smoking cigars as his wife screamed her way through the pain and peril of childbirth but Fred Wilkes had wanted to escape.  He could not bear to be in the house if Mary died, he could not bear to hear her last groans of agony.  Instead, he walked around

Fred

the grounds of his house, chain-smoking Turkish cigarettes and feeling like a coward.  He hated feeling so helpless, while upstairs Mary was in pain and in danger.  For the last year, he had done everything he could to make he feel safe and now through his own love and passion he had put her in danger.  He wished he could take some of the burden of childbearing upon himself and cursed himself for his own selfishness in wanting an heir. He walked and fretted, stealing frequent glances up to the window of Mary’s room.  He could do nothing and it half-killed him to know that.

For the first six months of Mary’s pregnancy, a beautiful serenity had washed over Loxley Grange. As the roses in the garden bloomed forth, so did the mistress of the house and Fred Wilkes watched his wife’s swelling belly with pride.  When the summer weather made eating indoors uncomfortable, Fred had arranged for great picnics to be held by the weeping willow by the moat.  Mary loved lying there, watching as the green waves of leaves dancing in the breeze.  Sometimes she wished she could set her bed up there in the peaceful shade, as the heat had started to disrupt her sleep as did the baby who seemed to be dancing a foxtrot.

The first dark cloud that summer had been the death of Lady Chiswick, who had died giving birth to her third child.  The Chiswicks had hardly been intimate friends of the Wilkes but their acquaintance had been close enough for them to shed real tears at the funeral service. Fred knew his wife well, he knew she became taciturn when scared and the growing silence between them after Lady Chiswick’s death told him more than a thousand words.  Mary had become haunted by a memory, that would not leave her, day or night.

 She could not shake the memory of her Aunt Lucille, her mother’s sweet-tempered and somewhat dizzy sister.  Mary had been just six years old when Lucille had been lost to the horrors of the childbed.  She had clutched her mother’s hand as she walked in to the bedroom where Lucille and her baby lay as still as marble effigies on a tomb.  They were the first dead bodies Mary had ever seen; her beloved aunt looked peaceful with her hands clasped in prayer and the baby swathed in white lace looked exactly like Mary’s wax doll.  From that day forth, Mary never played with a baby doll again.  Mary’s mother’s face had been taut with grief, her clasp tightened as she leaned over to kiss the cold cheek of Lucille. Fear had bubbled inside Mary has she had been picked up to kiss her aunt’s dead body, feeling the cold unyielding flesh beneath her lips.  She looked up at her mother, desperate for a word of consolation.

“Remember, my darling,” Mrs Taylor had said, choking on her tears. “That the childbed can very easily become your deathbed.”

Since Amelia Chiswick’s death, those words seemed closer than ever.

Copyright Ferens Art Gallery / Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The fear had begun to seep into her dreams and as Mary tossed in her bed, the baby lying still in the bed was a wax doll and the cold cheek she kissed was her own.  When Fred rushed into his wife’s boudoir, he found her cold and sweating with a fear that she would not share with him.  Closing up like an oyster when she was worried was Mary’s speciality,  Fred thought with affectionate exasperation. He knew the more you pushed her, the tighter she closed up.  Most women would weep and gush their worries forth, but Mary locked tight.  A first she denied angrily that anything was worrying her but Fred was prepared this. He understood her perfectly; every sigh, every smile, every  frown  and every stare was mapped out in his mind.  Fred had waited patiently, until gradually her reserve wore down and she told him in quiet sobs the fears that consumed her mind.

Usually Fred could find a way to laugh away her fears but this time he had grown silent and grave too.  A life without the wife he adored, the woman who was his beacon in the darkest of storms, to lose everything he had fought for; it seemed too bleak a future to contemplate.  Mary’s heart had been hard to win and even harder to keep, but Fred would always maintain that her love was the greatest of all his wealth.  Fred dealt with his fears in his usual way, by spending vast sums of money. He engaged the services of not one, but two Harley Street doctors who disagreed with one another on nearly everything except the fact that Mrs Wilkes was in a fine state of health for an expectant mother. However, they were professionals and justified their exorbitant fees by frequent and diligent examinations of their patient.  The near-constant presence of doctors convinced Mary that she was weaker than they admitted and that they expected the delivery to be fatal to her.

For Mary, the greatest pain was the idea of Fred all alone again in the world.  She knew he would never be short of female company, for her husband was always a ladies’ man but she also knew that without love, Fred’s heart would become calloused and hard once more. She could not bear to think of his loneliness.  It hurt her to think her child would never know the love between his parents.  She began to write.  Inside her, their baby kicked and squirmed as Mary scrawled down every memory she had of their marriage.  From the day she had married a virtual stranger, to the day she had nearly drowned in Hersdean Lake.  It was everything she could bequeath her child, an unflinching account of how she had fallen in love with her most unlikely hero.   She poured her soul onto the paper.   It had hurt to lay all her secrets bare, to reflect calmly on her own weakness and destruction.  She grew impatient with her past self, angry at the pointless lies and tears.  In the heat of an argument, Fred had once told her that her tendency to blame herself for everything had bordered on self-indulgence and looking at the story on the dry pages it seemed Fred’s angry words had more than a little truth in them.  Mary had scarcely finished the manuscript, when the pangs of labour had begun.  Before she called out to alert anyone, she hurriedly scribbled a final message for her child in case she could not whisper those words when the baby was born. She wanted her child to know they were loved even before they were born.

Blue smoke clouded around Fred’s head as he paced up and down the lawn, the darkness had begun to creep in.  Fred took a deep sigh and returned to the house. It had been nearly fifteen hours since Mary’s labour had started and still there had been no news.  Fred poured himself a large port and tried to settle down in his study.  It seemed like a century to Fred before he heard the heavy tread of the doctor on the stairs. He stood to attention as the doctor entered, with a joyful smile on his face.

“It’s a boy,” the doctor said. “A fine, healthy boy.”

Fred took a deep breath and allowed himself a moment to bask in the joy of happiness of fatherhood. He longed to hold his son in his arms, to look into those new eyes and make him every promise in the world but there was one more thing he had to hear.

“And my wife?” A knot formed in throat as he asked.

“Oh she is quite fine, your wife is a strong woman,” the doctor said airily.

***

 

Fred climbed the stairs with mounting excitement.  He burst into the room where his wife lay flushed and beaming.  Mary was tired, hurting and utterly in love.  She refused to let the nursemaid take the baby from her, staring deeply into his eyes that burned bright with life. There was so much joy in her eyes as she stared down at her son, his skin against hers had taken away all the fear and all the pain.  At that moment Mary wished she could live that moment forever, never step away from that moment of pure love.  Fred watched her with glowing pride.  He stepped forward and kissed her on the forehead.

“I’m proud of you, my girl,” he grinned and stroked his son’s cheek gently.  “He is a handsome chap.”

“Oh Fred, I really thought I was going to die and never see such perfection,” Mary sighed.

Fred leaned down and kissed his wife once more, he loved her more than anything that moment.  She looked stronger than a goddess and as lovely as the dawn.  Motherhood was already suiting her.  Fred tried to put out of the mind the black fears he’d succumbed to not one hour earlier.

“You, Mrs Wilkes?  Die?  What rot,” he kissed her one final time.  “Even at your weakest, you are the strongest woman I know.”

With that, Fred looked down at his son once more.

“And you, my son,” he continued with a soft smile.  “Are the luckiest of babies.”

 

 

The End

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The Return Ticket

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Toil and pain by faith ye have borne;

Hail, hail, victors ye stand, Wearing the wreath that the brave have worn!

March of the Women.

I board the train at Victoria.  Calmly taking my seat as though it is just another journey and I am just another passenger.  I look in my purse to ensure my return ticket is there, ready for inspection.  It takes three checks to reassure me the ticket is where I think it is.  On the platform I see the brass-buttoned guard blow his whistle, before he is consumed by the steam from the engine.  As the train puffs out of the station I look at the window, my reflection in the glass is like a ghost over London, it does not change while the City slowly disappears into green.  The other passengers pay little attention to me, and they have no reason to; I am the picture of respectability.  I look like the middle-aged schoolmistress that I once was, not a soldier for the Cause.  My frail body bears the penance of our struggle but I shall not stop until justice is served. Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.

The buffet car is pleasingly quiet and I order cup of tea.  I briefly consider buying a bun, but the quality of railway food is always less than desirable.  The currant bun is certainly lacking in currants and has a delicate layer of dust on it; but even if it looked more appetising I am too agitated to eat.  Tea is all I need.  God has given us no greater restorative than a cup of tea.  The gentleman opposite exchanges a polite smile with me as I settle back into my seat and sip politely.  As I watch his reflection in the window, I wonder whether he would have a bland smile on his face if he knew he was travelling with such a notorious woman.  He cannot see the sash of purple, white and green tied around my waist, those three colours that can drive the mildest of men into an irrational rage. Perhaps tomorrow he will see my picture in the paper and recollect that he travelled with me on the train, for I am sure my petition to the King will make the front pages.

As England’s green fields pass by my window I think of Joan of Arc; a mere girl hearing the voice of the Lord, obeying the call to war.  Her journey to martyrdom had been a harder one than this, travelling the dirt roads of France on horseback rather than a train ride across the Downs.  Last night I lay a wreath at her feet and I felt her smile down on my endeavours. I believe God has called me to fight for the Cause as he called Joan to fight against the English tyrants in France.  When I am arrested, I shall think on her bravery.  I shall think on her as the wardresses wrench me down onto the bed and the doctor forces the cold steel of the gag into my mouth.  As I am subjected to the torture of force-feeding; I shall not think of her bound to a stake or chained in prison, but proudly riding across France in shining armour.  I find I am trembling at the memory of imprisonment and I sit up straight in an attempt to quell my agitation.  Wisps of smoke dance by, and I would rather dwell on such transient nature rather than my various incarcerations.

The train pulls into Epsom, my final destination.  Passengers flow from the train like water in a river bed, and I float along with them.  It is a pleasure not to be fighting against the current for once and I feel a moment’s serenity.  When I get to the racecourse, I do not go to the grandstands with the other respectable ladies, but make to the part that is free to all and sundry.  The crowd is bubbling with excitement, their red faces flushed with beer and it seems nearly every mouth has a cigarette dangling from it.  I move through their ranks in a bubble of calm, floating past unnoticed by any of them as I make my way to Tattenham corner.  I see Mary Richardson’s eager face amongst them; her small dark head is dwarfed by her large hat and large nose.  I notice the frailty of her hands, the ravishment of her last hunger strike is still visible.  A brave comrade, but one of Mrs Pankhurst’s adoring puppies and always a bit nervous.  She is selling copies of The Suffragette and I do not want to attract any necessary attention by speaking to her.  Besides she will only want to know why I am here and I am not ready to reveal that. I give her a smile, the same one my friends refer to as my Mona Lisa smile.  A smile and a nod, she is satisfied. She has no idea of what I am capable of doing, what I will do.

I stand, my body pressed against the rails, and I become aware that the smile has not left my lips.  I feel the Votes for Women banner beneath my jacket, sweat beginning to dampen my skin.  The sun is blazing down and I raise the race card to shade my eyes.  My hand is firm and I am ready for the race to begin.  The heavy hooves pound on the earth, the riders drawing close and closer.  The red livery of the King’s jockey is some way behind the leaders.  Now is the time.  Deeds not words.  My fingers close around the cloth of the banner; I pull it from beneath my jacket and slip beneath the rails ready to catch the bridle. 

The ground beneath me shakes with the thunder of their hooves; I am lost in the storm of their gallop.  I smell the trodden earth, the smashed grass and the foaming sweat of the horses.  In this moment of trembling confusion I think of the return ticket, safely in my purse.  I shall return from this journey.  I grasp for the bridle.  The jockey’s eyes open wide and white, they meet mine in shock.  The sweating horseflesh, as solid and hard as prison walls, strikes my relenting body and I am jolted into the blue sky.  I hear rather than feel the sickening crash as I hit the ground.  I smell rather than feel mud and blood. I feel nothing. I see nothing. 

All is black.

 

 

Death takes the living too

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Always you were so alive,

Bright smile and dark mischief within.

Eyes searching across the club

Seeking out new lives to collide.

Together we’d drink and dance

Room electric with your high spirits.

How can that light of yours dim

Always you were so alive.

 

 

Always you were so alive,

Too alive to meet that death

What hate or love behind that blade

Could cut a life like yours?

But death can steal the living

As swiftly as it takes the dying

And somehow you are gone, yet

Always you are so alive.

This poem is dedicated to the memory of Steve Barrett, who was taken from our world tragically early.  Rest in Peace Steve, you were loved by so many.

Today I Wish

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Today I wish I could fade away,
Deep into the shadows I long to stray.
The dark hangs close around my soul
My happy light it has stole.

Today I wish I could just flee
Away from this dark that swallows me.
I wish that this black would depart,
But it lies heavy on my heart.

Today I wish I could surrender,
Give into the bleakest splendour.
But today I will stay and keep the fight
And hope again there will be some light.

First publication and other projects

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I’ve been neglecting my blog as usual, but not my writing so much.  I have co-founded a writer’s group for University of Birmingham staff and even more excitingly I have my first publication.  It is in an anthology of short stories around the ideas of the City, inspired by a wonderful exhibion at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.  Although I think it is very unlikely that we will ever make any money from it, with royalties of 6p a book being divided by 15 contributers, I am very proud to be published alongside such other fantastic writers.  In case any of you are interested in it, here is the links

From UK:  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cityscapes-Andrew-Killeen/dp/1481162322/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1358088958&sr=8-1

From USA:  http://www.amazon.com/Cityscapes-Andrew-Killeen/dp/1481162322/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1358089303&sr=1-1-catcorr&keywords=Cityscapes+Killeen

I am currently working on a short story of Emily Wilding Davidson and the fateful Epsom derby, as well as redrafting my first novel which I have stripped back and started to rewrite it almost completely from the skelton.  I am very pleased with it so far and I am glad that I decided to be brutal with myself.   When it comes to historial research, I put a lot of my visual research on Pinterest.  I do hope to write some more poetry in the near future, I am sure waiting for inspiration to strike at the same moment I have some spare time to scribble it down.  I am also thinking of blogging about my other great passion, food and cooking, but I may leave that until next year.

 

That is all from me now, thanks for reading!